The criminalization of black girls in the classroom

By Alexia Underwood

Monique W. Morris

Dr. Monique W. Morris believes black girls deserve better from our schools. For her latest book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, the writer, scholar and activist spoke with hundreds of young women who’ve been forced out of the U.S. education system. They don’t just drop out — instead, they end up in juvenile detention facilities, in prison and on the streets. A disturbingly high percentage (about 19 percent) are sexually assaulted or trafficked.

Using interviews she conducted across the U.S. and a heavy dose of statistics—like the fact that black girls are expelled from New York schools at 53 times the rate of white girls, and that black girls are only 16% of the female student population but make up one-third of all female school-based arrests—Morris crafts a powerful argument. Black female students are disproportionately punished, she writes, because of how stereotypes about black femininity play out in the classroom. How black girls act, speak and dress is often perceived as “delinquent” due to assumptions based on racism, classism and sexism.

A number of young women interviewed in the book recount how they were encouraged to speak up and express themselves, but then were punished for giving the teacher “attitude” when they did. Others recall being told to change their clothes because they dressed too provocatively, while their white classmates wearing similar clothes were ignored. “Too many black girls are being criminalized (and physically and mentally harmed) by beliefs, policies and actions that…push them out of schools and render them vulnerable to even more harm,” Morris writes.

This high-profile school arrest incident occurred in October 2015.

Her solution? Adults and educators must learn to understand what this criminalization looks like and build a common language and framework to stop it. Her book succeeds in illustrating shocking differences in discipline and punishment in the U.S. school system and points to a real lack of data about a pervasive problem. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q: This isn’t your first book about black girls and how they fare in our school system and society. What inspired you to tackle this issue?

A: Years ago, I was a researcher with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and I was spending lots of time in and out of detention facilities, doing research on policy, writing briefs. It occurred to me that the population that I was interfacing with wasn’t reading research briefs. I wanted to write something else.

I stumbled across a song — my husband, actually, introduced me to a song by the Coup — “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Grenada Last Night.” I wanted to analyze some of the topics that Boots [Riley] was interrogating in that song. As a male MC, he was tackling this material from his vantage point. I wanted to add a feminine perspective and introduce some of the elements that were unique to Oakland…and talk through some of those issues related to protests, and liberation.

So I wrote a novel (Too Beautiful for Words)to talk about these issues, thinking I was writing it for boys and girls — for our greater community. But when I started to go into these facilities, I noticed that it was girls who were gravitating toward it the most. At that time, there were many ways in which people were inappropriately engaging in conversations about the sexual experiences of these girls. Writing the novel gave me an opportunity to enter these accounts and conversations with these girls in a different way, and talk to them about some of their pathways to criminalization and confinement. These talks started to elevate a series of issues that concerned me, as a former black girl — as a black woman.

Shortly after that I wrote an article called “Black Girls on Lockdown.” I got my first piece of hate mail, asking me how I had the audacity to center black girls. How dare I do that when there’s so much pain in my community.

After that, I decided that my work — whatever I did — would include black girls.

Q: Have you seen any progress over the last few years?

A: Yes, and I think we’re going to see more.

At the time I wrote “Black Girls on Lockdown,” I talked about how there was a paucity of research centering black girls age 12–17. Even in 2012, there was very little exploring this concept of the school-to-prison pipeline that included black girls. Black girls were experiencing racial disparity at rates that surpassed everyone. And still there was very little research. There’s more now, but we’re still waiting for a solid, full ethnographic study that… describes the conditions, that describes what it’s like to be black and female.

While there may not be a lot of academic scholarship, there are still a number of narratives that begin to explore what’s happening in the lives of girls and young women. [But these] often come out in stereotypical ways that don’t allow for us to fully dissect or engage in a conversation about what is producing those stereotypes.

At the end, I say I want [this book, Pushout] to be a catalyst for a much more robust engagement and discussion about the lives and experiences of black girls.

Q: You’ve spoken about this topic to various audiences around the country. What has the reaction to your book been like?

A: The reaction has been twofold: a celebration of the material, and a sigh of relief and validation among women and girls. It’s hard for girls to find their voice, no matter what racial or ethnic group you’re a part of. But when girls who are living under multiple oppressions are urged to speak out this way, it’s even more powerful.

I received the greatest compliment in Pittsburgh. A girl found me off to the side [after I spoke about the book] and told me, “You said everything that I feel.”

Q: In conversations that I’ve had, the aspect that people seem to grasp most quickly about your book is the sex trafficking aspect — that girls who are pushed out of the school system can become victims of this. What do you think about that?

A: I think people gravitate to different aspects of this book. It’s easier for the public to access that narrative — girls who are sex trafficked. It’s universally viewed as repulsive. People get that you should not be trafficking children, and when children are vulnerable, we should respond.

What’s harder is the discipline issues and the ways in which I try to get people to understand the expression of that trauma and how it affects black girls. So many of our girls do float under the radar if they’ve been sex trafficked. But I want to reject — in all forms — a prioritization of oppression.

I want to make clear that we shouldn’t apologize for black feminism or participate in stereotypes of black girls being super sexual. I want to challenge us as adults and educators.

Q: What do you hope that people take away from Pushout?

A: That black girls are uniquely impacted by the climate of punishment in our schools.

One thing I say often: Education is a critical protection. It’s a factor against involvement with the criminal and juvenile legal system for girls. Given that we know that, it’s our responsibility to do everything possible to keep our girls in schools. We’ve got to think about it differently.

The second thing is safety. We talk about safety as if we can only do that through a more visible surveillance presence of law enforcement. But safety has to be co-constructed. It has to be agreed to and implemented along with the community that you’re trying to keep safe.

We can think through alternatives to discipline and alternatives to school pushout. California is interesting because we have the policies and legislation that provide a framework for us to exhaust all remedies… but the racial disparities are still there. We still see more black girls in trouble. I think it’s important that we interrogate our own ideas about who they are and how we engage in practices that show [girls] how to be their best selves and give them opportunities to demonstrate their best selves — and not be primarily focused on holding up a mirror when they make mistakes.